Poster advertising play Vagrant is the title of new play at the Burton Taylor Rooms. It’s actually quite a good play (see review), but the final performance was tonight, so you’ve probably missed it.

The story is about three young homeless people trying to survive on the streets of Oxford. In the terminology of homelessness, they are “rough sleepers” or “roofless”. This distinguishes them from other types of homeless people who may be in hostels, B&Bs, sofa-surfing or just inadequately housed. “Vagrants” isn’t part of the vocabulary and I found the choice of this, to my mind, pejorative word in the title slightly distasteful – though perhaps it can be justified as artistic license.

Vagrancy Act 1824This set me wondering. In the work I do at the Oxfordshire History Centre, there are a number of offences under “a statute enacted in the Fifth Year of His Late Majesty King George the Fourth intitled ‘‘An Act for the Punishment of idle and disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds, in that Part of Great Britain called England’”.  By the time the legalese has been removed, most offences boil down to:

“being a rogue and a vagabond and leaving his wife and children chargeable to the Parish of ….”

 “being an idle and disorderly person, and abandoning his family”  

A bit of research identified the source of these offences as the Vagrancy Act (1824). More surprisingly, the Act (or bits of it) is still on the statute book.

So yes – you can still be convicted of being “an idle and disorderly person” for begging “… or causing or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do” and you can still be convicted as ”a rogue and vagabond”  for  “wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon  and not giving a good account of [yourself]”.

In fact, in 2011, Oxford Magistrates convicted 10 people under the 1824 Vagrancy Act (down from 53 in 2002). The poor it, it seems, really are with us always.

Links :
Vagrant – read review
Vagrancy Act (1824) – full text
Convictions in Oxford under the Vagrancy Act (1824) – (1992 to 2011)
Tramps and Vagrants through history – fascinating and readable article from The Workhouse website